The last time Chris Brown stood on stage at Xcel Energy Center, he and Rihanna held hands and sang “Umbrella” together in seemingly blissful harmony for the KDWB Jingle Ball in 2008. Two months later, he beat his hitmaker ex-girlfriend to a pulp after a Grammys party, and his career has never been the same.
At his return to Xcel Center on Sunday, though, Brown seemed desperate to act like nothing has changed. The half-full crowd that did show up was OK with granting him that wish, too.
The Virginia-bred R&B singer — a 12-year music industry veteran at only 27 — brought in an impressively large, hi-fi stage production centered in the middle of the arena floor. He and a crew of a dozen high-flying dancers worked the stage like they were at centerfield during the Super Bowl.
Attendance, however, was more like a super strong night when the Minnesota Swarm lacrosse team used to play at the X, with the upper deck of the arena entirely dark and empty and about 7,000 fans in the lower bowl.
Brown seemed oblivious to the empty seats. After thanking fans for “buying the tickets” (priced $29-$200), he added, “I don’t care if you’re seated up top or at the bottom.” (There was no one up top.)
Still, even 7,000 people might seem like a lot to Brown’s most vehement detractors, especially when around two-thirds of the audience were women. To them, the local date on Brown’s so called Party Tour was exactly as promised: a party.
They screamed when he arrived floating above the stage held by straps (surely, those detractors would like to get him in a similar position). They sang along to both the old hits near the start of the 80-minute set, such as “Poppin,” and to recent, between-the-sheets singles that came later, including “Back to Sleep” and “Liquor.”
A dozen attendees interviewed before the concert all offered a similar defense of Brown: He was young and immature when he assaulted Rihanna in 2009, and the incidents and charges against him since then were amplified by the media because of his celebrity status. (Brown himself must agree with the latter point, since he refused to provide the standard reviewer tickets to local media outlets.)
“We all have issues, but his are in the spotlight more because of who he is,” said Tanisha T. Tucker, who flew in from Denver to see her mom and attend the concert. “He’s still a very talented musician, no matter what.”
In a group of friends who all declined to give their last names, Jasmine of Minneapolis doubted the legitimacy of more recent allegations (one of which resulted in a judge-ordered restraining order), but then she pointed out, “He had tickets as cheap as $30 and still couldn’t half-fill this place. So I’d say he hasn’t gotten off.”
The show got off to a messy start. Unbeknown to some of the arriving fans, the biggest would-be opening act, 50 Cent, dropped off the tour last week. Then the concert started almost an hour late. Finally, a confusing array of rappers, including O.T. Genasis and Kap G, barraged fans nonstop with track-recorded mini-sets until the final opening act, Fabolous, settled in for a livelier half-hour set.
The Brooklyn rapper still only peppered fans with abbreviated snippets of his songs, though, as if he had so many huge hits to cover in so little time he just couldn’t treat fans to full-length versions of the ones they cheered, including “Make Me Better” and “Can’t Let You Go.”
A 60-second countdown clock announced Brown’s arrival, but the blastoff was muted as another 30 seconds or so went by till he finally showed.
Putting aside all the police reports and well-documented violence and photos of a bruised and battered Rihanna — not easy stuff to put aside, mind you — Brown’s performance was still far from comeback-level. His voice has plenty of velvety power left in it, as he proved early on in a dramatic “Deuces,” and he still shows traces of Michael Jackson in his stylish dance moves, which he reiterated in the show finale, “Party.”
But Brown stopped and started a lot for outfit changes, and the momentum never really got going. Also, the big wow factor in his production — the stage itself was one giant video screen with nicely synchronized visuals — was lost on most of the crowd because those effects could only be seen in the (mostly empty) higher-up seats. That’ll look great if and whenever he does make it to the Super Bowl, though.